Washington team in 1st seems a bit out of place


WASHINGTON - Two things most Washingtonians thought they'd never see but now have: A presidential impeachment trial. A D.C. baseball team in first place in June.

A little more than a third of the way through the season, the Washington Nationals woke up yesterday morning teetering atop the National League East by a half game over the Atlanta Braves.

Longtime Washington fans, giddy as they are about their team, admitted it didn't look quite right. These are fans who suffered through the perennially downtrodden Washington Senators and grew accustomed to perusing the standings from the bottom up. That way, they found their team faster.

"Put it this way, this is a new experience for me," said radio personality and local baseball historian Phil Wood, who grew up watching the Senators. Like the current Nationals, the old Senators were often called the Nats.

"To go out now and see a team with all these come-from-behind wins this year, that's just not Senators baseball," Wood said.

The Nats, the former Montreal Expos, had expected to draw attention in their first season because of their novelty. Winning has been a surprising, welcome extra.

The team refers to the Elias Sports Bureau as saying no Washington baseball club has been in first place this "late" in the season since 1933, when the Senators won their third and last league pennant, losing to the New York Giants in the World Series.

The Nationals' early success has come even as the club is so new that it doesn't yet have permanent ownership or a solid television deal. Its players barely know their way around town. "You plan a route from home to the ballpark and that's about it," said catcher Gary Bennett, who lives in Bethesda.

"There's really been an incredible buzz in Washington about how the Nats are doing," said D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission member William Hall, who helped the effort to attract the franchise from Montreal.

Granted, the season is still young and the team's fortunes could spiral downward. "We're able to sell ourselves as a first-place team at least for a couple of days, and that's not a bad thing," said David Cope, the Nationals' vice president of sales and marketing. "But two days from now we could be in last place."

Cope wasn't speaking metaphorically. The division is so tight that only 1 1/2 games separate the five teams in the division. Last night, the Nationals' lead grew to a full game when the Braves lost, dropping Atlanta into a second-place tie with the New York Mets.

Still, it's hard to begrudge Washington fans some joy, no matter how fleeting. A Washington franchise has won just one World Series - in 1924.

Among those intimately familiar with the depths of the old Washington clubs is current Nationals manager Frank Robinson. The longtime Oriole hit grand slams in consecutive plate appearances in 1970 off a pair of Senators pitchers. He accomplished the feat at the same stadium - Robert F. Kennedy Memorial - where his Nationals moved into first place Sunday (yesterday was a day off) by winning seven of eight games after trailing in each one.

Through it all, Robinson has told his players they are not good enough - they hit relatively few home runs - to get cocky. He has attributed the success so far to pitching, team "chemistry" and the fans.

To truly understand the giddiness of the team and its fans, it must be understood that a year ago the Nationals were barely a glimmer in baseball commissioner Bud Selig's eye.

The franchise was still losing money and games in Montreal, heading for a 67-95 season as the Expos. To get to the nation's capital, the team had to overcome the resistance of Orioles owner Peter Angelos and a divided D.C. Council whose chairman was wary of the high cost of a bill needed to secure necessary stadium funding.

Once the team arrived, most fans would have been content with a spring or summer night eating hot dogs at the old ballpark, along with an intermittent win.

But the team has given them more.

"I know I was prepared for the team that was in Montreal last year," said season-ticket holder Don Plavnick of Arlington, Va.. "After 34 years without baseball, most of us would take anything. So this is a real bonus. It probably won't last."

Plavnick isn't alone in his belief that the club may not hold first place long. The team has been beset by a rash of injuries that have sent 14 players to the disabled list. Before its current successful homestand, the club had lost seven of nine games.

But, like a politician adept at political comebacks, the Nationals have shown a capacity to rebound.

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